by Richard P. Jones

   If the governor agrees, life-saving devices that can revive heart attack victims with an electric shock may become as common as fire extinguishers in buildings.

   The Legislature Tuesday sent Gov. Tommy G. Thompson a bill aimed at boosting the distribution of semiautomatic defibrillators .

   On a voice vote, the Senate gave final legislative approval to the bill that would protect lay people trained in the use of the devices from being sued when acting as "good Samaritans."

   Lay people who successfully complete four hours of training in the use of defibrillators would be immune from civil liability if they used the devices in good faith. The proposal would not preclude lawsuits in cases of gross negligence.

   "This bill will go a long way toward saving more lives," said Sen. Judy Robson (D-Beloit), Senate sponsor of the legislation. She said the American Heart Association estimates that if every state adopts such legislation, 100,000 lives could be saved annually nationwide.

   "We envision them to be as common as fire extinguishers in public buildings," Robson said. She said she expected at least one to be placed in the Capitol. The devices cost between $3,000 to $3,500.

   About the size of a backpack, semiautomatic defibrillators are devices used to shock a heart into normal rhythm. When a person suffers a heart attack, two electrodes are attached to the individual. With a press of a button, the device delivers an electric shock if a lethal heart rhythm, or quivering of the heart, is evident.

   Under current law, defibrillators can be used only by physicians, paramedics, emergency medical technicians and certain other "first responders" such as police officers who are trained and authorized to use them.

   For years, the American Heart Association has been urging wider distribution.

   Under the bill, immunity to civil lawsuits applies only if the person completed a training course approved by the Department of Health and Family Services. The legal protection also would apply to the owner of the devices and the instructors.

   "Semiautomatic defibrillators can be safely used by people with just four hours of training," said Robson, a registered nurse.

   The computerized device signals when to administer a shock, Robson said. She described them as foolproof, preventing anyone from triggering an electric shock if the heart rate is fine.

   Robson said the devices cannot be used on children younger than 8.

   The legislation recently passed the Assembly on a voice vote. Besides Robson, its sponsors are Sen. Gary Drzewiecki (R-Pulaski) and Reps. DuWayne Johnsrud (R-Eastman) and Sheldon Wasserman (D-Milwaukee).